Mark Athitakis Newsletter #15

Reading wrong, North Korea, post-skronk.

Front Matter

Happy new year! Did you resolve to read more in 2019? Please consider not doing that.

I tend to wince whenever I see aggressively prescriptive reading guidance. Here, you’re told to experience 50 books you need to read this week/month/year. There, somebody (who is this person?) has produced one of those bingo cards you can fill out by reading books in different categories, giving you a small flicker of satisfaction from experiencing---all together now---more works in translation or more contemporary poetry. What would you read if you didn’t have the bingo card? Would you read at all?

I resist this kind of programmatic reading. But I program too. There are books I’m reviewing, books I’m judging, books I’m reading for a book club, books I’m squeezing in for pleasure. To the extent my reading choices are my own, I look to fill in gaps---authors I like, books that have come strongly recommended, classics I haven’t yet gotten to, categories that befuddle me and which I would like to be less befuddled about. (I have a Helen Vendler-edited poetry textbook/anthology I read from every morning, like a devotional.) Every reader has methods to become the Jamesian person on whom nothing is lost, though Henry James never seems to make it onto those bingo cards.

These days, though, I think less about reading more and more about reading well. Not that I’ve been reading badly, I think. Sure, I’m as prone to distraction as anybody else who reads with a laptop and smartphone nearby, or who just has everyday concerns. And they’ll creep in if the book before me isn’t especially seductive---did I remember to pack the boy’s lunch? Is the garage door closed? But I’m concerned with a different issue: Even if I’m paying attention, I’m paying attention to some things at the expense of others.

Plot, for instance. Every critic reviewing fiction knows that plot summary is necessary in a review, but also deadly. Reading a story that retells a story is like watching a movie through chessecloth. Explaining that Ellie and Jack are on the brink of a divorce but they have an autistic daughter and Ellie is thinking of joining a cult, maybe, is wearying, so critics tend to privilege other things in a review: The quality of the language, the themes, where the book fits within the author’s oeuvre and other novels of its type, and so on. I won’t dismiss a book on a clunky plot alone, because there are too many examples of novels that transcend plot, or don’t have much of one at all. (I haven’t investigated the matter thoroughly, but I suspect James Wood has had an outsize influence on the matter in this generation, he being both a graceful thinker about fiction and a critic who’s largely unconcerned about plot---indeed, who considers it mainly as fodder for parody.)

My head’s been turned on the matter largely through my attendance of a monthly book club, where many of the attendees are attentively, at times fearsomely, concerned with plot. The decisions characters make are much more interesting to them than they have been to me; I tend to be more concerned with aftereffects and implications. (Plot’s just the vehicle to get to that stuff, right?) I have a bad habit of starring and highlighting sentences in which the author is in aphoristic, big-statement mode. But plots can do that big-statement work too, and can say just as much about what an author is thinking about.

Plot is just one example or the issues I face when reading, though---you can have all sorts of blind spots with what you’re reading on the page, all sorts of attitudes that you can bring to a book. When I attended the University of Chicago, I preferred to study at Harper Memorial Library, a Gothic pile that was short on modern amenities but had the high vaulted ceilings and aura of old-fashioned seriousness that a bookish working-class immigrant kid was bound to romanticize. One wall of the main reading room was decorated with a truncated quote from Francis Bacon: “Read not to contradict nor to believe, but to weigh and consider.” I read that quote a lot, and I was much too impressed by it. I suppose that Bacon was cautioning us against gullibility and facile disagreement; whatever 16th-century hot takes looked like, he was against them. But the quote’s prim and sober advocacy for weighing and considering is just as narrowly prescriptive as any read more poetry diktat. Telling you not to contradict something forecloses argument; telling you not to believe forecloses the possibility of immersion and transport. Do we not read for those things, too?

My resolution, then, isn’t to read more---I read plenty. On this trip around the sun, though, I’m thinking more about what I’m looking for in a book, what I’m missing, and what it might mean to read differently.

What I’m Reading, Essay Dept.

Austin Murphy’s tale of slinging packages for Amazon after decades as a top-shelf writer for Sports Illustrated is equally funny and haunting; I’m trying to treat it too much like looking into the future. Similarly, Aaron Gilbreath’s story on how music magazines have vaporized in recent years is dispiriting, though I’m glad to hear that The Big Takeover, a favorite from my music-crit days, is still chugging along. Sam Cha’s fiery take on recent plagiarism scandals in the poetry world gets at both the emotional and cultural harm that comes with the thievery. Meredith Shaw’s overview of the literary landscape in North Korea is surpassingly strange, but says something interesting about how writers are privileged and what for. Helen Andrews’ recollection of being a target of online abuse is impassioned---and perhaps also a reminder that online assholishness isn’t owned by any one political ideology.

End Notes

Inspired by Nate Chinen’s book Playing Changes, I was moved to check in on what John Zorn has been up to lately. (I was never much of a free-jazz/skronk nerd, but I’m fond of his soundtrack and Naked City projects.) Whereupon I discovered last year’s Insurrection, a set of Zorn compositions that pay tribute to some of his favorite 20th century experimental novels, like William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. I’m not bright enough to tease out how what’s going on musically maps to what’s going on literarily, but I do know that drummer Kenny Grohowski is a beast, and that the stop-start interplay gives me the same pleasure I used to get from math-rock acts, just with more chops. The whole thing’s on YouTube, but you should do as I did and buy the thing.

Thanks for reading. Send reading strategies, ranked lists of Slint-affiliated projects, and other correspondence to Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.